Finally, a Legislative Check on a Runaway White House

What the 116th Congress can do—starting right now—to block Trump’s anti-environment agenda.

January 04, 2019
The opening of the 116th Congress in the House Chamber in Washington, D.C.

Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The 116th Congress of the United States of America was sworn in on Thursday at noon, and for the first time in two years, a formidable legislative check has been placed on the climate-denying, polluter-coddling Trump administration. The newly composed House of Representatives may not be able to stop the destructive Trump juggernaut in its tracks, but it does have the power to countervail this administration’s worst tendencies—and, with any luck, mitigate the damage.

So what sorts of things might the 116th Congress do to thwart President Trump’s virulently anti-environment agenda?

The most obvious and heartening answer: They can introduce sunlight—“the best of disinfectants,” in the words of former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis—into the shadowy workings of this administration, exposing its rot and forcing officials to publicly defend their largely indefensible records of catering to industry at the expense of public health and the environment. Key to this development will be the shift in oversight of various House committees that directly affect our nation’s climate, energy, and environmental policies. Ever since President Trump began gutting the country’s air, water, and climate protections (which was practically his first order of business upon taking office), millions of Americans have wondered what could be done to stop the cavalcade of environmental rollbacks. A steady stream of litigation has certainly helped. But as long as there was no public accountability, no having to answer for it all, the officials doing all of the rolling back got to set the terms of the debate.

That’s about to change. Questionable activity begets questions. And when you’ve raised as many eyebrows as the Trump administration has—through its efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act at the behest of oil companies and other polluting industries; its arguments against increased fuel efficiency for vehicles; and its opening up of our public lands and vulnerable coastlines to mining and drilling operations—it begets a lot of questions. Those questions are now going to be asked in a series of official hearings, after the banging of a gavel. And administration personnel, whose responses will enter the Congressional Record, will have to answer them under oath.

Stop Andrew Wheeler

Why is this important? For one thing, getting people from the U.S. Department of the Interior or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to explain their methods and motivations on the record is healthy for the promotion of government transparency, a cornerstone of our democracy that has seen way too much erosion lately. But on a less philosophical and more tactical level, the testimony provided by Trump officials during hearings and investigations can help those who have been working to block this administration’s illegal actions via our court system.

Platitudes and talking points won’t cut it when your interlocutor is asking you pointed, direct questions about your meetings schedule and phone logs—and when she has the power to hold you in contempt for evasiveness. These folks will (finally) have to tell the truth, publicly, about whom they’ve met with, whom they’ve dined with, whom they’ve consulted for their dubious studies, and how and why their policies appear to redound to the benefit of fossil-fuel companies and corporate polluters with such uncanny consistency.

As for actual laws: Given the state of political standoff between House Democrats and Senate Republicans, we might not see any sweeping climate-related bills enacted over the next two years. But there is still enormous value in bringing such legislation to a vote in the House, passing it there, and then sending it on to the upper chamber.

The public is still reeling from the conclusions of back-to-back published reports that graphically describe the costs of insufficient action on reducing our carbon emissions. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe that climate change is real, that human activity chiefly causes it, and that it poses an existential threat to future generations. Legislators know that they can’t keep running from these facts, and from their increasingly concerned constituents, forever.

Until such time as we can successfully push the deniers and the laggards out of Congress, we should be applying as much pressure as possible to their ranks. If they want to vote against smart, reasonable climate legislation, let them do so. Then force them to explain why they’ve chosen to vote against it—in as many newspaper articles and Sunday-morning talk shows as are willing to give them a platform.

The tide of public opinion is turning, and its strength is overwhelming. Politicians had better hope their answers can stand up to the coming wave.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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